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Photos by Maura Flaherty.

Rowing is tough. If you’re familiar with the sport, you’ve probably heard tales of blistered hands, sore muscles and glacial sprays from half-frozen rivers. But, as adversity often does, the shared pain that rowing teams endure creates true camaraderie. With eight in a boat, synchronicity is key. Every rower has an obligation to his or her teammates to struggle past the pain, stroke by stroke, making the shared result that much sweeter.

For one all-women’s team based on the South Side of Chicago, this solidarity is especially strong. Recovery on Water (ROW) is a rowing team for breast cancer survivors who want to take an active role in fighting back against their cancer. Founded in 2008, the program started as a way to promote exercise among survivors after new research found that exercise could dramatically decrease the chances of relapse.

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ROW began with Sue Ann Glaser, a breast cancer survivor and Evanston resident, and Jen Gibbons, a rowing coach for freshmen boys at St. Ignatius College Prep. According to Gibbons, rowing is an especially good choice for breast cancer survivors because it’s really accessible, people can participate in it their whole lives, and it’s the ultimate team sport.

“It’s not like going to the gym or playing a sport where someone else can just swap in for you,” she says. “If you decide not to go to the workout tonight, you may be changing the fate of seven other people.”

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What makes ROW so remarkable is the journey of each member. Each woman brings passion and dedication to row at all costs. The survivors join the team at different stages of recovery. Some women are still going through treatments or approaching surgeries, while others are survivors of over 16 years. Especially during treatment, when one’s body is weakened and tired, it is very easy to take a day off. But, when you are part of a team of women, each with their own struggles, you are motivated to persevere.

Glaser had been battling different forms of cancer for nearly 40 years, but her breast cancer diagnosis hit especially close to home.

“My daughter was 20 when I was diagnosed, and I was 20 when my mother died of breast cancer,” she says. “I had to do whatever I could to stay healthy and stay alive for my daughter’s sake as much as for my own.”

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As one of the leaders of her team, Glaser is humbled by the strength of her teammates. “Chances are no matter what you have been through, someone else has been through worse.”

The leaders of ROW are forces for good in the lives of the athletes as well. In 2012, Gibbons rowed around the perimeter of Lake Michigan (over 1,500 miles) in solidarity with her team, and raised more than $150,000 for ROW. Many athletes have cited Gibbons’ mission as their inspiration for joining or motivation to persevere. In one year, ROW’s participants have doubled to 60 women. Team members come from all over Chicagoland, from the South Side to Evanston to Downers Grove, and represent many races and socioeconomic backgrounds. Regardless of the story each woman brings to the table, the impact of ROW is undeniably powerful.

According to Devlin Murdock, ROW’s operations and programs coordinator, the survivors show a 55 percent increase in exercise-type activity after they join the team—and it’s a difference they can feel. Glaser says that rowing was a kind of therapy for her, especially in her most physically-trying days of treatment.

“Being on the water is just such a magical place,” she says. “With all the endorphins rolling around my body, I did not feel pain.”

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A Win-Win Partnership

ROW practices are offered six days a week at one location on the South Side and another location on the North Side. In order to make the experience accessible for all breast cancer survivors, they have scholarships in place for team members in need of assistance. However, until recently, distance was a big issue. With women traveling to practices from so many areas of the city, the staff worried about the commute to the far South Side.

“We want women to consistently exercise, and if getting to the South Side of Chicago is an issue, then they’re not going to have that consistent exercise,” Gibbons says.

In November 2014, when ROW’s women’s board was looking for other places to offer exercise opportunities, they were approached by Ron Boi of Alliance Rowing Club of Illinois (ARC). Boi told ROW that his rowing club, based in Wilmette, was looking for a community outreach opportunity and ROW seemed like the perfect fit.

By partnering with ROW, ARC would provide ROW team members with access to their practice space and their coaches twice a week.

“I got like four text messages on Tuesday night, after the first night that we had the session [in Wilmette], and everyone is just so excited and so thankful,” Gibbons says.

Gibbons says this partnership has allowed ROW to further its mission in many ways. As for ARC, the partnership gives their relatively new club a focus for philanthropic work and helps attract new athletes, says Brian Easter, program director and co-founder.

“As trite as it sounds, it’s a win-win,” he says.


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